President Trump signed an order Monday reimposing harsh economic sanctions on Iran and on the foreign companies that deal with it, saying the penalties lifted under President Obama in the 2015 nuclear deal will be rigorously enforced until Tehran radically changes its behavior, including the funding of terrorism and its massive military buildup.
The sanctions, which were sharply condemned by Iran and by major European allies that say they are determined to preserve the nuclear deal, follow Mr. Trump’s decision in May to pull the U.S. out of the accord. A second round of sanctions planned for November will target Iran’s banks and its critical oil and natural gas exports.
Mr. Trump has repeatedly denounced the international accord to curb Iran’s nuclear programs as a “horrible, one-sided deal” that gave the Islamic republic billions of dollars while failing to permanently stop the country’s drive for nuclear weapons.
“We urge all nations to take such steps to make clear that the Iranian regime faces a choice: either change its threatening, destabilizing behavior and reintegrate with the global economy, or continue down a path of economic isolation,” Mr. Trump said in a statement.
U.S. officials denied that toppling the Iranian regime was the goal of the sanctions but said they were betting that the increased pressure would force a significant change in policy, including Tehran’s support of terrorist groups, its threat to Israel and America’s Gulf Arab allies, and its backing of destabilizing forces in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.
“The Iranian regime demonstrated time and time again that it had no intention to cease its state support for terrorism, foreign proxies and other malign activities,” said a senior administration official who briefed reporters on background. Iran “has continued to promote ruthless regimes, destabilize the region and abuse the human rights of its own people.”
Iran’s leaders have been rocked by a string of popular economic protests and a falling currency in recent months, but they vowed Monday never to yield to pressure from Washington.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in a nationally televised address, slammed the U.S. move and accused Mr. Trump of playing politics at home while trying to sow chaos in Iran.
“The U.S. reimposes sanctions on Iran and pulls out of the nuclear deal, and then wants to hold talks with us,” Mr. Rouhani said in a statement carried live on Iranian national television. “Trump’s call for direct talks is only for domestic consumption in America ahead of elections … and to create chaos in Iran.”
On Twitter, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called the Trump administration hypocritical for claiming to have the interests of the Iranian people at heart with sanctions that will hold back the economy and endanger public safety.
“The Trump administration wants the world to believe it’s concerned about the Iranian people,” he tweeted. “Yet the very first sanctions it reimposed have canceled licenses for sales of 200-plus passenger jets under absurd pretexts, endangering ordinary Iranians.”
National Security Adviser John R. Bolton said internal dissent and economic mismanagement inside Iran are bigger problems for the country’s theocratic rulers than any U.S. sanctions.
“I think this regime is on very shaky ground,” Mr. Bolton told Fox News. “The real question is whether the Revolutionary Guard Corps and ayatollahs will use force against their own people.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who personally lobbied Congress against the deal in 2015, hailed Mr. Trump’s decision on Twitter.
The sanctions decision may prove a key test of Mr. Trump’s “America first” foreign policy. All of the other signatories — Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Russia and China — say they remain committed to the 2015 deal and vowed to work to frustrate the U.S. sanctions.
Three major European allies said Monday that they had put into place mechanisms to allow their companies to continue to trade with Tehran despite the U.S. sanctions.
“Preserving the nuclear deal with Iran is a matter of respecting international agreements and a matter of international security,” the foreign ministers of France, Germany and the U.K. said in a joint statement, adding that they “deeply regret” the U.S. move.
China, Iran’s biggest oil export market, also has said it will not honor the U.S. sanctions and will continue its trade with Tehran.
The administration’s move to reimpose sanctions also produced a partisan split at home. Leading Republicans praised the move, but Democrats who backed the original deal warned that it would isolate Washington at a time when U.N. inspectors say Tehran has honored its part of the agreement.
“I have long opposed this administration’s irrational hostility to this agreement,” Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, said in a statement.
He said the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal has divided America’s allies and risks a shooting war with Iran. “President Trump’s foreign policy is a dangerous gamble with nuclear weapons,” he said.
Administration officials confidently predicted that multinational European companies will in the end value access to the U.S. market and financial system over any deals they can make with Iran. Companies such as Total, Siemens, Peugeot and Maersk already have announced plans to shut down investment plans with Iran despite EU promises that they would be shielded legally and financially from retaliation by U.S. authorities.
The first set of U.S. sanctions target Iran’s automotive industry, as well as gold and other metals. The sanctions, officially reinstated at midnight Monday, also affect the sale of graphite, aluminum, steel and software to and from Iran.
“The next 90 days will see increased economic pressure,” an official said. “This will have exponential effect on Iran’s already fragile economy.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters Sunday that the administration is willing to consider a future without sanctions, but it would “require enormous change” from Iran.
“We’re hopeful that we can find a way to move forward, but it’s going to require enormous change on the part of the Iranian regime,” he said. “They’ve got to behave like a normal country. That’s the ask. It’s pretty simple.”
One interesting wrinkle in the fierce back-and-forth was Mr. Trump’s surprise offer last week of unconditional talks with Iran’s leaders, which both sides appear to be keeping open as an option. Mr. Pompeo and other U.S. officials have laid out a long list of demands that they say Iran must meet if there is to be any basis for talks.
But U.S. officials said Monday that offer for direct, top-level negotiations remained on the table, despite the sanctions.
Mr. Trump “has been very clear: None of this needs to happen,” one of the senior administration officials said in the background briefing. “He will meet with the Iranian leadership at any time to discuss a real, comprehensive deal that will contain their regional ambitions, will end their malign behavior and deny them any path to a nuclear weapon. The Iranian people should not suffer because of their regime’s hegemonic regional ambitions.”
Mr. Rouhani also did not totally close the door on direct talks.
“We are always in favor of diplomacy and talks,” the Iranian president said Monday, but such talks require honesty.
“If someone has knife in the hand and seeks talks, he should first put the knife in his pocket,” he said.